A Journey through Haunted France
by Simon Marsden
Editions Flammarion, Paris, France,2006
192 pp. Trade, 39,90 euros
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY
Who can say why certain landscapes, and
ruins in those landscapes, move us so
deeply? Or why we sometimes enshrine them
as part of our cultural heritage, giving
to them a value they would not otherwise
possess? And why is it that, in recognizing
our penchant to value what we no longer
live in, whether ruin or not, we find
that place renewed but only as it slips
away? Is the sensibility of exile so ingrained
within us that we cannot do without it;
and what of death and its architectural
or natural mirrors?
In 10 books of photos and commentary,
Simon Marsden has given to us an oeuvre
that responds to these, and other, questions.
His love of places which we might call
haunted or magical, and
his virtuosity in capturing them on film,
notably infra-red film, roots him to a
world of resonance and metaphor.
His most recent book, Ghosthunter:
A Journey through Haunted France,
is an exceptional offering in this regard.
From 7 September to 13 November of a recent
year, Marsden visits 56 places throughout
the country. In each place he frames an
exacting record of a poignant encounter
with image and text. From Père
Lachasie cemetery in Paris, where
he begins, to the Saint Trophime Church
in Arles, where he ends, Marsden reveals
a landscape that many of us know in part,
and some of us might seek to know more
of. Along the way there is the Menhir
of Guihalon in Brittany, Chastenay Château
and the Couhard Pyramid in Burgundy, Apchon
Château in Auvergne, Lanquais Château
in the Dordogne, Gramont Château
in the Pyrenees, and many more.
Rather than illustrating the more confounding
or perturbing aspects of a troubling or
arcane history associated with a building
and its grounds, Marsden steeps his art
in the sentient echoes left by that history.
His buildings, stones and forests expose
a visual language that grows vertiginous.
In this wall of the 15th century
ephemeral beings struggle and teem; from
that eroded medieval tower immobility
and distance take on near metaphysical
significance. A still moat cannot lull
the sense of a perilous plunge into reflection
or the silence that consumes it; this
"afterward" none can avoid.
The statue at Veauce Chateau, a woman
drowned in death, seems to pivot between
then and now in an unnerving if unseen,
yet perfectly felt bow to perpetuity.
Even the fountain of Apollo in the gardens
of the Palace of Versailles, so much imaged
in movies and postcards, presents through
Marsdens eye a sudden aerial quality
that infuses the trees that stretch out
behind it in twin flanks, and they, too,
begin to breathe.
This epiphanic sense of the real, a sense
that Marsden quite carefully orchestrates,
sustains momentum throughout the book.
At their best, his photos and writings
balance each other; at moments that balance
resolves into his retreat from a place
that might overcome him. Fear, as love
or hate, are emotions that entangle, and
in their grip impulsive acts can confuse
or enlighten. Marsden is no stranger to
these emotions or their repercussions,
and the book bears this out. Ghosthunter
is also a personal journey. As Marsden
writes in the Introduction: "I spent
my childhood in a haunted manor house
in a remote area of the English countryside,
where my father kept a large library of
books and manuscripts on the occult
long winter evenings he would read us
ghost stories as we sat beside the fire.
Fate decreed that I was the one who slept
in the haunted room; needless to say,
this left a lasting impression on me.
In fact, I now begin to think that my
obsession for photographing haunted sites
may be an attempt to exorcise these very
genuine adolescent fears of the supernatural."
Simon Marsden continues his fascinating
work, a work that compels from what we
see a sensibility of how we see and what
we live in what we see; the visual world
become a sounding board to emotions, thoughts,
and memories touched by time, the vivacity
of life and the entropy of death.